Sermon for Lent II: Those Who are Turning to God

Those Who Are Turning to God
Lent II; February 28, 2021
Acts 15:1-35

Some folks no doubt could come up with a more clever approach, but here’s my plan: to retell the story, filling in background information that may help you with it, add a bit more from the chapter that we didn’t read, and suggest a conclusion applicable to us, nearly two thousand years later.

Last week we talked about Acts chapter ten, when Peter had a vision in which God taught him that just because the old rules said that certain people were excluded, God could override those rules. After all, they came from God, so God could change them. Peter baptized the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends, even though they were Gentiles. The next big step was taken at the city of Syrian Antioch, where preachers from Cyprus and Cyrene brought a number of Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Christians at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on a preaching mission to Galatia, where they also brought many Gentiles to faith in Jesus. The Gospel was spreading in the Empire and many were worshiping the God of the Jews without becoming Jews.

Maybe I need to explain the word “Gentile.” It simply means someone who is not a Jew. It is not uncommon for a group to have a word that means, simply, “everybody else.” In ancient Greece, they figured there were two groups of people: Greeks and barbarians. “Barbarian” comes from the sound Greek-speaking people said everyone else made: “bar-bar-bar…” You were Greek or you were barbarian. And so with Jew: you are a Jew or you are a Gentile. At least the word doesn’t feel like an insult.

In the Book of Genesis (chapter 17), the Lord God told Abraham that he was to wear in his own body the sign that he belonged to God: he was to be circumcised. And God added that every male born into his family and every male among his servants was to be circumcised. On a boy’s eighth day, he is to be circumcised to show that he belongs to the people of God. Since Jewish people have perhaps the greatest store of humor of any group in the world, this has led to some wonderful jokes. A rabbi who performs ritual circumcisions is called a mohel; a tourist visiting in Jerusalem needed her watch repaired, and she stopped at a shop with clocks and watches in the window. She went in and asked the man inside if he could fix her watch; he said, “No; I’m a mohel.” She asked, “Then why do you have all these clocks and watches in the window?” He replied, “Nu; so what should I have in the window?”

Anyway, God told Abraham that this sign of the covenant, circumcision, was the sign forever and that any male not circumcised was to be cut off from the people. God didn’t say, “This is the sign until I change my mind;” God said, “This is the sign forever.” So some helpful folks from Jerusalem went to Antioch and told the believers there, “Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.” Paul got up on his hind legs and contested with them, and so the Christians sent Paul and Barnabas, and a few others, to Jerusalem for guidance from the Apostles and the Elders of the Mother Church.

Luke summarized what must have been quite a debate. You have the conservatives – called here “the party of the Pharisees” – arguing that “forever” means “forever” and that the criteria for salvation are quite clear and explicit. The men must be circumcised; it says so here in the Book. Then the Apostle Peter got up and reminded them of what we read here in church last Sunday, what God had shown him. He pointed out that God had given the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and his household and none of them had been circumcised; did God make a mistake? Besides, the Law of Moses has become such a burden for us, why should we force the Gentiles to keep it too?

To be sure, Jews I have known who are careful about keeping the Law of Moses do not seem to find it a burden; they accept it as a mark of identity. It shows who they are and to whom they belong. But let’s forgive Peter for going a bit further than necessary to make his point. After him, Paul and Barnabas told about the spread of the Gospel in Galatia and of the amazing things Christians were doing there and in Antioch because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

After carefully listening to everyone, the Bishop James, brother of Jesus, got up and gave his decision. He quoted the Books of Amos (9:11-12) and Isaiah (45:21) as support for the actions of Peter and said, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” We will not demand that they be circumcised. We will not insist that they keep the Law of Moses. He added, though, that they would ask a few things of them with respect to eating habits, with a clear purpose in mind. If the Gentiles would refrain from those few things, then there is nothing to prevent strictly observant Jews from having table fellowship with them. The point of those few rules is for the sake of the others. And Christians are always willing to sacrifice a few pleasures for the sake of table fellowship with each other.

The rest of the story is follow-up. They did write the letter James proposed, and it was beautifully written: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Do you see what they’re doing there? They are saying that the decision that Gentile Christians, baptized in Jesus, do not have to be circumcised and do not have to keep the Law of Moses is a decision direct from the Holy Spirit, not from them, but they agree with it. The Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem are happy that the Holy Spirit has led this way; they do not begrudge the Gentiles their welcome.

The followers of Jesus who have kept all these rules faithfully, and who will continue to keep them, said straight out that they are happy that the Holy Spirit is not requiring Gentiles to keep them too. Have you ever said, “I had to do it, so you have to do it too”? That was not their attitude in Jerusalem; their attitude was to rejoice in the ongoing work of God. They also said that the folks who had gone there earlier and upset them had done so without authorization, and they added the part about some essential rules for the sake of table fellowship.

Paul and Barnabas, who were trusted by the people of Antioch, were sent, along with two representatives of the Elders of Jerusalem: Silas and Judas Barsabbas. And the people of Antioch rejoiced at the decision and at the message. And you and I may rejoice too, because it meant two great things. One simple thing it meant is that there was no hindrance to the spread of the Gospel: Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without having to become Jews first, so the Gospel spread quietly and steadily throughout the Empire. And the other great thing it meant is there is no distinction between men and women in the fellowship of Christ. Our sign is not circumcision; our sign is Baptism, which is the same sign for everyone.

Now, one more note about follow-up before I suggest something to us. Although the Apostles and Elders came to this conclusion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not everyone accepted it. Later on some preachers went out from Jerusalem and started bothering Gentile Christians, quoting Scripture and telling them that unless they were circumcised they could not be saved. It isn’t a new phenomenon: the Church decides something, but people think they’re smarter than the Church and try to undermine it. And it isn’t only conservatives who do that. Yes, I’ve been told by conservatives that unless I’m baptized by immersion I cannot be saved, and that unless I speak in tongues I cannot be saved. But I’ve also been told by more liberal folks that the Apostles’ Creed is optional; one minister said she found it boring and so refused to use it at baptism, even though our Constitution explicitly requires it. Someone is always smarter than the collective wisdom of the Church.

Anyway, this chapter gives us good guidance on deciding whom and what to believe. Please don’t ever give in to the “anything goes” way of thinking, that what we believe doesn’t matter. One of the reasons our planet may not be able to sustain human life in the foreseeable future is because so many people don’t believe reality. What we believe matters deeply. And Acts Chapter 15 suggests some guidelines:

+ Let those who are in the position of moral and spiritual leadership decide and trust their judgment, even if you don’t want to.

+ And those who are making the decision should be sure to: listen carefully to all the voices involved, not just the echo-chamber of those who agree with them; pay attention to the real experience of people (such as Peter, Paul, and Barnabas) as a sign of what God is doing in the world; and pay attention to the witness of Scripture, even if it may point in a different direction from where it had pointed before.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit can be explicit, as the Spirit was with Peter on the rooftop and in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), but more often the Holy Spirit will lead when the Apostles and Elders get together prayerfully, listen to Scripture and listen to each other. And now you have had your first lesson in the way Presbyterians make decisions.

I hope, finally, that we do not lose sight of who benefited from this decision: those who were turning to God. Isn’t that our key concern? To welcome those who are turning to God? We’re not concerned with making things easy on ourselves or doing something just because we like it. After all, we may not like it, at least at first. But to welcome those who are turning to God? It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to trouble those who are turning to God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska